BTU #250 - Navy Veteran to Congressional Candidate (Josh Welle)

A political campaign is akin to a 12-14 month deployment. It’s 14 hour days, 7 days a week.
— Josh Welle

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Why Listen:
Josh left Active Duty after 12 years of service, which can be a very difficult decision for people in the military. In this interview, Josh shares a great perspective about how to approach this decision. In this interview, we talk about starting a company. We talk about politics, and Josh’s own run for congress, including how he raised over $1.8 million for his campaign. We talk about viewing your life as different, distinct chapters and how to use that approach to explain your background. We talk about not having the outcome be the entirety of your focus and recognizing the things that are out of your control, while still giving your all to a cause you believe in. We talk about networking, we talk about eulogy virtues, and so much more. Needless to say - there is something for everyone in today’s interview.

About Josh:
Josh Welle is a Defense Council Member with the Truman National Security Project. Earlier this year, he ran as a Candidate for Congress in his home state of New Jersey. He started out at the Naval Academy -  as part of the illustrious class of 2002 - after which he served in the US Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer for over 12 years, to include missions in OIF and OEF. After leaving the military he founded a software company with two other veterans, raised seed capital, and delivered software to the government. He holds an MA/MBA from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

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Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from the Jersey Shore is Josh Welle. Josh Welle is a Defense Council Member with the Truman National Security Project. Earlier this year, he ran as a Candidate for Congress in his home state of New Jersey. He started out at the Naval Academy -  as part of the illustrious class of 2002 - after which he served in the US Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer for over 12 years, to include missions in OIF and OEF. After leaving the military he founded a software company with two other veterans, raised seed capital, and delivered software to the government. He holds an MA/MBA from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.


What advice to you have for listeners in regards to transitioning out of the military?

I would advise people to look at their lives in chapters. As a Surface Warfare Officer, it became a bit linear for me. I definitely benefitted from my surface but I was seeing classmates and friends have robust careers outside the military. I gained such great experience in the Navy and I wanted to apply those skills outside the military. I had also just gotten married and was looking for additional stability in my life so that my wife could excel in her career as well. I could see that if I stayed in, she wouldn’t get the stability she needed to advance in her career.

There are friends I had that got out of the military at 15 or 17 years and have gone on to have very successful careers. Just because you did 10 years doesn’t mean you have to do 20. And just because you do 20, doesn’t mean you have to do 30. It’s very contextual based on your situation. I do encourage people to consider going Reserve - I’m a Reserve Officer. But in the last four years since separating from active duty, I’ve had so many positive experiences that I really don’t regret it at all.


What was the first job search like for you?

The decision for me to transition out of the Navy and start a venture came to me within my last few months in the military. I was talking with some Navy friends of mine and we had a shared vision and a passion to participate in a digital revolution. The government can be stagnant and slow to adapt to technology.

So my friends and I started a software company and my first job out of the military was as the COO and founder. I augmented that decision by using the GI Bill at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Kennedy School does a great job of offering programs featuring intersectionality so I was able to study both technology and public policy there.


Do you have any advice about starting a company directly out of the military?

If you’re starting a company, especially in the technology space, it’s vital to have a great team. The other co-founders were two other veterans. They had several years of experience in the civilian sector before starting the company so that experience was vital.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Angel Lists - a resource for finding other leaders and networking. Networking has always been kind of inherent to me. I was the youngest of three boys and grew up on the Jersey Shore. I had a part-time job starting from the age of ten. So I’m pretty scrappy and that has helped me as an entrepreneur.


How did you make the decision to run for office?

Being part of the defense technology ecosystem kept me front and center with Congress and the White House. Even after I left the military, I never lost the passion for service and the idea of ‘government for good’. There was an idea of disruption. What I learned as an entrepreneur was the idea of technology disruption.

I had a deep love of government and I though running for Congress was my opportunity to create positive change in our government.


If someone on active duty has an interest in going into politics after the government, do you recommend going straight into it or going into the private sector to get experience first?

I’m happy to answer any of your listeners questions on this and I encourage them to reach out to me directly if they are interested in getting into politics.

Where our country is today is a place in which our politicians are not positioned in a way to succeed. The way I tried to position my campaign was in a way that showed me as an outsider - but a well-qualified outsider. I had technology and entrepreneurial experience as well as military service and leadership.

The next step was to hire a campaign manager and finance director. We needed to find an office location and IT support. We had a team of about 7-10 as well as thousands of volunteers.

I announced in September and then there was a primary in June. We won that and went to the general election in November.

I think you can go straight into politics from the military but I believe it can be really beneficial to get experience in the private sector, too, to make yourself more well-rounded.


What were the first couple months of your campaign like?

There’s not a great “How to Guide” when running for office. Running for office starts with a conviction of service. A political campaign is akin to a 12-14 month deployment. It’s 14 hour days, 7 days a week. And you go without income during the process. One of my mentors, Seth Moulton, told me that if you really want to win a campaign, you have to make it your full-time focus.

There’s also a lot of life and management skills that go into it. The life skills are about connecting with other local leaders. Before announcing, I talked to various politicians in the State of New Jersey and in Washington, DC. So if you want to run for office, I would encourage you to make sure you’re connecting with those stakeholders.

The other management piece is hiring a campaign manager and finance director. You also need to find an office location and make sure you have IT support. Toward the end of my campaign, we had 7-10 full-time employees and thousands of volunteers.


How long was this process?

I first took about 60 days of reflection before I decided to run. I announced in September and a primary in June. After we won that, there was the general election in November.


How did you reach out and connect to those local stakeholders you mentioned?

Politics is a small circle of people, a small pond. So, creating goodwill and trust is your currency in politics. In the fall of 2017, I was working and campaigning for people running for office in my district. I think it’s better to give before asking. So I wanted to help out in their campaigns because I knew in the future, I would need help from them during my campaign.


Do you have any advice for veterans on advocating for yourself?

Servant leadership does apply in politics. The work of the legislative and executive branches is to lift other people up. So I think you can ground yourself in that concept of servant leadership.

Integrity is doing what’s right when nobody's looking. When you are running for office, you are in the spotlight constantly. What grounded me during those times was just working to lift up and support the people around me. I wanted to unify people during my campaign.


What was a typical day like during the campaign?

I was up at 5 or 6 and tried to get a workout in. By 7:30 I was usually at a New Jersey diner with an activist, local leader, church leader, or local politicians. I listened to what issues they cared about and thought about how I could include those ideas in my campaign. After that I would go to our campaign office and get together with everyone to discuss our goals for the day. During the day, I would devote 4-6 hours to making phone calls to voters. We raised $1.8 million which was not easy. But we really believed we were working for a better America. I included a lot of software in this process as well so that we could analyze the data regarding the calls we were making and the impact they were having. From 4-6 pm, I would be knocking on doors, talking to people about our team’s goals. After that, I would make calls to people on the West Coast to continue to try to raise money for the campaign. We would usually wrap up the day around 2300.

It was hard work. But life during a deployment prepares you for that. The idea of discipline, teamwork, and perseverance were very applicable. I’m very grateful for the team we had during the campaign, they were amazing. I hired a transgender women to help us with our IT. She had an incredible story and was extremely savvy with data.

Our team would usually make 300 calls a day. So we all sat together for hours during the day. I couldn’t have done it without them. After the campaign I talked to the transgender women that had worked with us and she said that the days working on the campaign were some of the best of her life. She felt accepted and she was using her talents in a really impactful way. I really respect her and was so happy to have her as part of our time.


What was life like for your wife during the campaign?

She was so incredible. The sacrifices that family members go through campaigns is extreme.  Before this, my wife had worked for a time in the Senate. So she had an idea of the life we were getting ourselves into. She also has an interest in potentially running for office in the future. So she was able to use this campaign to share ideas she was passionate about.

We went into some credit card debt along the way. But my wife understood that it was for a higher calling that we were doing that. She is extremely tough when it comes to supporting me and my dreams.


What was the most challenging moment of your campaign?

When your idea of what American politics should be crashes into the reality of what American politics actually is -- that can be really challenging. By the end of this campaign, I understood so much more about the dynamics of American politics. It’s a lot of luck, a lot is out of your control. We outworked our competitor and had a great grassroots following but there were things like gerrymandering and money that played a role in the outcome. So that was a tough pill to follow at times.

But that tough reality is offset by a lot of joy. We gave people hope in the American political system. We got people excited about running for office. We did a lot of work in the campaign surrounding equality for women in the workplace. And we inspired more women to run for office.

I was running against a 38 year incumbent. The Sunday before the election I went to church at a predominantly African American congregation. The pastor came to me and told me that in those 38 years the incumbent had been in office, he had never visited that church. So I think that meant something to them.  


What resources would you recommend to someone that wants to run for office?

If you go online to New Politics, Arena PAC, or With Honor. These are political action committees that support veterans running for office.

You can always go to party leadership in your township or state to gather information.

If you want to run for office, ground yourself in the community. Give yourself 18-36 months to really root yourself in the community. Assist in other political campaigns to build those relationships that will help you if you decide to run.


What’s next for you?

I’m still in a reflection phase. I think you can lose the election but win the race. The race for me is to live a life of service and impact the communities around me. So even though we didn’t win, I’m still moving in a positive direction. I’m considering starting a political action committee that helps people coming into politics from other sectors.

I’m also passionate about technology and government. I’m looking at government and private sector positions where we can bring cloud and cyber security tools so that we are keeping Americans safe. I think a lot of that comes for digital understanding and literacy.

If I run again, it will likely be for national office. That would likely be in 4-6 years. I think if I ran again, it would be easier because I now have all the experience from this first campaign.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

When I was at the Harvard Kennedy School, I adopted the “chapter” approach to my life that I was talking about earlier. A lot of that has to do with a book by David Brooks - The Road to Character. In that book, he references “eulogy virtues”. A eulogy virtue is something someone will say about you when you’re gone. When you left your ship or submarine - what did people say about you? Were you a person of character? Can you be trusted?

I also want to be in a position where I can exude those virtues and lead a life of purpose. I think you can have impact in so many different stages of your life. But for me, that was only possible because all of what I learned at the Naval Academy and in the military. At the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and say that I lived a life of purpose.